Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Calamari Please Hold the Ketchup

In the last few weeks I’ve been hit with an overwhelming craving to eat calamari, aka “fried calamari in the typical fashion." To me that translates to breaded rings and tiny tentacles of squid that are deep-fried and served hot and crispy. When I refer to calamari I am never referring to grilled calamari on top of greens or that newish fad of calamari sticks—a stack of breaded calamari planks that when picked up flounce up and down like a rubber pencil. Nope, those latter types of calamari are just not for me.

Calamari is one of those proteins in which I suspend my disbelief about 80% regarding what I’m actually eating. What can I say, I could barely look into the famous and breathtakingly gorgeous jellyfish tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and while I know that jellyfish are not quite the same as squid, still, this type of creature is not what I like to imagine ingesting with full cognitive awareness. Calamari is squid after all, and personally I do not find squid attractive to look at or think about chewing. That said, the tiny tentacles pieces on a typical fried calamari plate is pretty much the squid sticking its tongue out at me proclaiming, "See, how could you NOT know you're eating me, the squid." Alas, how true, and that is likely why 20% of my brain always gets that eating delicious fried calamari equals eating pieces of a once squiggly, icky squid.

Could be why most savvy restaurateurs in these parts call the dish fried calamari instead of fried squid. In this food blogger's opinion, that move was a little dose of menu engineering magic on menu pages everywhere. This not-obvious word appearance on an appetizer list could even lead McNugget-eating youngsters to try some, even if in the end it doesn't quite taste like chicken.

A while ago I blogged about the best calamari ever, and that would be from Carmine’s in NYC. Their fried calamari isn't just a culinary delight; it's also a cultural one. As I wrote in 2009:

Carmine's, by www.foodspotting.com
 “The famous calamari appetizer arrives on a white platter measuring roughly a foot and a half long. The calamari on the platter is piled about 6 inches high, and this is why you shouldn’t be shocked that the ever-climbing price for the best calamari in the city is now topping out at $25.50 a plate. No one can finish this on their own, so the thing to do is order it, eat what you will, then pick a neighbor to your left and/or right to pass it down to when you’re through. That is what’s done, almost expected, and is all part of the homey feeling inherent in the place. The best is watching the shocked and pleased faces of newbie tourists crammed at the bar anxiously waiting for a table, when you start to pass down the calamari, look 'em in the eye and say 'Please, I’ve had enough. Enjoy.' Even when you've had your fill, the platter looks untouched! So it is a little confusing for sure. But by the time the tourists nervously utter “oh, um, that’s ok” the bartender has already moved the platter in front of them and insisted on your behalf, to which the tourists take a sigh of relief that New Yorkers are ok afterall while they start chowing down on their free calamari.”

It's also fun to enjoy calamari when it's co-starring in fritto misto. Then you get other treats beyond fried squid. My new favorite spot to get this dish is a local wine bar in the Los Feliz neighborhood of LA called Vinoteca. The dish there is called Frito Misto di Pesce, it costs $13 but during happy hour is only $7! This is a great deal considering the dish consists of perfectly prepared calamari, soft chucks of white fish, shrimp and spicy zucchini. I’ve had it about three times now, and two times ago I was halfway through eating it when I realized the shrimp were missing. I asked the server if the kitchen changed the recipe. She checked with the kitchen and came back to my table to shrug and say something refreshingly honest: “They just forgot to put the shrimp in this time.” That was good news on two fronts: 1) Turns out they make each batch fresh, and 2) The shrimp hadn't been removed from the dish. As I was leaving that night, the kitchen insisted they fry up some shrimp for me to take to go as a way to apologize. Not necessary, but a very nice touch.

The other place I just realized makes fine fried calamari is Dominick’s in Beverly Hills (it's the sister restaurant of Little Dom's in Los Feliz). I'm usually in that neighborhood Monday evenings, so a few weeks ago I stopped by and thought it was time I try something other than their famous rice ball. Dominick's calamari was straight-up what you would expect from a very good Italian place, and it did not disappoint. The dish also went especially well with a dirty Grey Goose martini.

From my experiences in this country, calamari is served 95% of the time with marinara sauce on the side. With the exception of Carmine’s, I almost never dip my fried calamari into that sauce. To me, it’s like dipping my food into thick fancy ketchup, which in my opinion hides the true taste of food. The only reason I may use some of that Carmine’s sauce is because there’s so much calamari on that plate, your palate needs a little something to break up the fried monotony (not to mention Carmine’s sauces are always amazing so it’s hard to deny them). Of course it is never my intension to ignore that little ramekin of red sauce and hurt the chef's feelings. It's simply that I prefer to eat calamari in the traditional Italian style: with a demure squeeze of lemon, from the slice that is always included on the plate. The acid in the lemon helps break up the fried monotony too, yet it doesn’t cloud any of the flavors; it only enhances them.

It should be noted that I completely respect the fact that most people wouldn't dare eat a plate of fried calamari without marinara sauce. These same people—most people—wouldn't eat a burger and fries without ketchup either. Live and let live! I just think some things taste great as they are. Of course there are degrees and levels to everything and to some people, I'm the nut in the first place for covering up the true taste of squid with breading and deep-frying it. Hmm, I can see their point. Well, the glories of fresh grilled squid is another topic for another day, but not on my blog.

Until we eat again,

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